Saturday, June 07, 2008

To Portugal and Beyond

On Friday we spent the day in Lisbon, Portugal. This was another stop in which I had a lot of things that I wanted to see and do. Much like Barcelona, Grace decided to sign up for a tour through the ship. Dennis, on the other hand, decided to join Jennifer and me for a day out on the town.

I liked Lisbon. It sort of feels like a city that isn’t sure which way it wants to go, upscale and trendy or sort of seedy with a touch of pizzazz thrown in. I saw many more beggars, for example, than I saw in Rome and Barcelona. I suspect however this may be because Lisbon is not quite cool/touristy enough to ensure that beggars are not in the touristy areas. I also saw amazing little shops and cafés though and just beautiful architecture.

Lisbon is known for its painted tiles on the sides of buildings. At any point in time you might look up and see an intricate design with a mixture of blue and yellow tiles. Many of the streets are still cobblestone and are so narrow that only one lane of traffic can travel down them. The city itself is very hilly. It made me think of my alma mater (Ohio University) in Athens, Ohio where one had to go “uptown” instead of downtown because of all the hills. Lisbon is a much bigger town than Athens though… it has almost 1 million people… and the hills are, much, much steeper.

One of the appealing things about Lisbon is the very interesting public transportation system. In addition to an excellent Metro system, Lisbon has a series of trams (San Francisco style cable cars) and “elevadors” (which are a crazy cross between a cable car and a funicular) that travel up and down certain, steep, hills. In my opinion, the elevador was more interesting than the tram… the hills it went up and down were so tight and twisty you litterly could have reached out and touched the building next you (for obvious reasons, I didn’t try my theory).

The day in Lisbon began with yet another early departure from the ship. I’m starting to see the same people every time we get off the ship as soon as we are permitted to, I guess people who are doing the town “on there own” tend to be early birds. Once on land, Dennis, Jennifer and I headed to the nearest Metro station to buy an all day pass that would allow us to travel the Metro, tram, bus and elevador system (quite the bargain at 4 Euros, if you ask me).

Our first destination of the day was the Castelo de Sao Jorge. The castle, which was first built in 1147 by a gang of crusaders, sits high atop a hill overlooking the city and port of Lisbon. The best way get up is take the #28 Tram, which has so much historic significance itself it has its own paragraph in the guidebook I bought.

Once atop the hill we paid the entrance fee, entered the castle and (as promised) were rewarded by amazing views that stretched for miles. The castle structure was also kind of fun, full of old passageways and random trees in random courtyards. There were also many Portuguese cats who lived nearby… clearly they are use to prowling the slippery rock walls of the castle.

After about an hour we wandered out of the castle to check out the surrounding neighborhoods. On the rocky hillside below the castle was the Alfama neighborhood. Alfama is known for its winding, narrow streets, many of which are not really streets but stairways that lead down to the next set of houses. Jennifer and I wanted to see a museum on the history of Fado music (basically Portuguese Blues) but it was at the bottom of the Alfama district not near any public transportation.

We decided to walk down through the neighborhood as going down is much easier than going up. When we eventually found the museum (at the bottom of the hill along the water) we discovered that it is closed for renovation. By this time the three of us were hungry so se stopped in a café where we each had a tasty hamburger and Coca-Cola Lite (Diet Coke) for a whopping 3 Euros a piece… so far I’m loving the prices of Lisbon.

After lunch we walked back to the Metro stop nearest to the central square and then went to the Rossio area of the city. Here we wandered the large tree lined boulevard and eventually hopped the Elevador de Gloria (pictured above) for a ride to the Baiirro Alto district. Once at the top of the hill we relaxed in a nearby park before deciding to head back down and going our separate ways (Dennis back to the ship while J and I stuck around for some shopping).

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it) it was after 1:00 PM and before 3:00 PM which meant that most smaller shops (the one’s we were interested in) were on “siesta” and would not open until after 3:00 PM. To kill time, we went to a little diner and tried the local cervesa. The best part? 3.25 Euros for two beers!!!

We ended up heading back to the ship around 4:00 PM. Jen and I skipped the formal dinning and enjoyed a little relaxation time before heading to the Lido for the buffet. We then met Grace in the movie theatre for the evening showing of Atonement. The 11:00 PM buffet last night was a chocolate extravaganza. The ship was pitching and rolling so much, however, that I didn’t feel like chocolate. The event was held on the Lido deck by the pool and I gotta tell you, when there are little whitecaps in the pool you know you are in for a rough night!

Today we are at sea on our way to Le Havre, the port to Paris and the coast of Normandy. The sea has still been pretty rough and my stomach is still not very happy with me. I wouldn’t say that I’m sea sick as I’ve not actually been “sick” (if you know what I mean) but I feel kind of woozy and wobbly, almost as if I’ve had a few too many drinks. The temperature has also taken a turn, it is colder and windier now, enough so that it’s too cold to go outside and sit for long periods of time.

Tomorrow we will be at sea for a second straight day. The entire Ferreter family has signed up to participate in a 5K walk around the promenade deck (it works out to about 11 laps) in support of the Susan G. Koman Breast Cancer Foundation. Tomorrow afternoon we plan to have high tea with Mark and Leslie and then tomorrow night is the final formal night of the cruise.

On Monday we will be docked in Le Havre, about 2.5 hours outside of Paris. No one in our group is going into Paris as the commute just seems too long and not worth the effort (who wants to spend 5 hours getting to Paris so you can spend less than that exploring the city?) I would like to try and get to Rouen, about an hour from the port, which is best known in history as the place where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake.

Tuesday we disembark early in the morning in Harwich (the port of London). All four of us are taking the HAL transfer to the airport before splitting one final time. Jennifer will be flying home to Newark (well, technically home is Manhattan) that night and Dennis, Grace and I are flying out the next morning. I have to admit that, while this trip has been amazing, I’m ready to go home.

With our upcoming travel plans in mind, I’m not sure if I’ll be able to post again until after I get home. If I can, wonderful, if not then I hope to see everyone when I’m back on the states… Via Chicago of course (grin).

Thursday, June 05, 2008


Once upon a time I wrote about race cars for a living. I was quite disappointed, therefore, when I discovered that we were missing the Monaco Grand Prix (held, as you can imagine, in the Principality of Monaco) by one week. To Europeans, the Monaco Grand Prix is the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500 all wrapped into one, it is certainly the “Grand Daddy” of the Formula One circuit.

Our stop in Monaco came last Sunday. I was pleased to see that they still had many of the stands set up on the race course area (it is a street course) including the start finish line, pit boxes and press box. I had some fun pointing out all the racing stuff to Dennis and Grace and explaining what everything was.

The ship docked Sunday morning around 9:00 AM. We had to anchor out in the port and tender in. The sea was kind of rough and the tender ride (although a short distance) made me queasy. Jennifer had gotten off the ship before the rest of us because she wanted to try and take the train into Nice. Being a Sunday, however, made the trip difficult and we ended up running into her later in the day.

Monaco is only a few miles large. The two big attractions are the Casino in Monte-Carlo (of James Bond fame) and “the rock” (or palace area) where the royal family still lives and where Grace Kelly and her husband Prince Renier are buried.

Like many of the cities that we have stopped in, much of what is worth seeing is up-hill. Dennis, Grace and I climbed up the hill to the Casino. Everywhere you look you see something more expensive then the moment before. We enjoyed the views of the million-dollar yachts, condos and cars. I saw at least three Ferraris just driving down the street. It was pretty cool.

We didn’t go into the casino, you have to be properly dressed (no open toed shoes, no jeans), you have to have your passport on you (I guess so that they can prove who you are when you start to lose money) and to get any further than the lobby you have to play one of the slots, which start at 10 Euros. Still, it was impressive even from the outside.

After hanging around the casino for a while Dennis decided to go off and do some exploring on his own. Grace and I made our way over to the other side of the principality to “the rock”. Monaco has a series of lifts and elevators that take people up the hills, I couldn’t find the one that was supposed to get us to the top of the rock though and so we climbed the stairs.

I liked “the rock” the best. There were narrow streets full of cafes and kitchy shops. We didn’t go into the palace but did go into the cathedral where many of the royal family (including Princess Grace) are buried. We ran into Mark and Leslie in the Cathedral, which was kind of funny, and eventually made our way back toward the famous aquarium that sits on a cliff by the sea.

The Aquarium was started by Jacques Cousteau and holds a collection of exotic sea animals that he gave to the former prince of Monaco. I considered checking it out (we had a lot of time in Monaco, 10 hours) but decided that the 12 Euro entrance fee was too steep. There was a series of elevators by the aquarium that took you back down to sea level so Grace and I descended the hill and headed back to the ship. By this time, the Ms. Rotterdam had pulled into the only dock available for a ship her size. The Ms. Melody (who had been docked there previously) had pulled out to leave for the day. I was glad that we didn’t have to take the tender again.

After we boarded the ship I spent a relaxing afternoon hanging out on deck. They had a barbeque on the lido deck so we skipped the dinning room and went to that. Jennifer and I hung out at the Lido bar and chatted with our friend Johnson while sipping Apple Martinis. We didn’t pull away from Monaco until after 10:00 PM. The stars were out and somewhere in the distance they were shooting off fireworks. It was a very nice end to the day.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Our stop on Monday was supposed to be Marseille, France. A few days beforehand, however, the captain announced that there was a strike at the dock in Marseille and we were forced to change our destination. As a result, we spent Monday in Toulon, France.

Toulon is about an hour from Marseille. As I had not done any research on Toulon, and as we were coming off a few very long days in port, we decided not to try and find our way to Marseille but to stay in Toulon. I have to be honest that I was not too impressed by our new port of call. Toulon clearly does not have many cruise-ships visit often. There really isn’t much to see there and the port area was more run-down than most we’ve been in.

Jennifer and I got off the boat in the morning to see what we could see. She needed to find a post office and pharmacy which we eventually did. Most of the shops in France are closed on Monday so there wasn’t much to do but wander around. We came back to the boat in time for lunch and then spent some time at the pool. I also hopped on-line and posted the blog entry about Italy. It was actually pretty nice to have a relaxing day and from what we were told by our dinner mates, Marseille was ok but we didn’t miss much by not going.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Today we docked in Barcelona, Spain. Besides Rome, this was one of the stops that really intrigued me. We got in early, around 7:30, and were cleared to leave the boat about 8:00 AM. Grace had decided that she couldn’t keep up with Jennifer and I anymore so she signed up for a tour through the ship. Dennis just wanted to get off and see what he could see by wandering and decided not to join us girls on our day in Barcelona.

J and I left the boat around 8:15 AM. The cruise terminals are in an industrial area requiring passengers to take a bus from the cruise terminal to the starting point of Las Ramblas, the main thoroughfare that leads into the heart of Barcelona. We were on the first shuttle (around 8:30 AM) with a few other hearty souls. Our goal was to get to a famous church designed by the architect Antonio Gaudi (called Sagrada Familia) before the tour busses from the ship did.

Most of Barcelona is very easy to explore on foot. Sagrada Familia however is a bit further away, requiring either the Metro or a taxi. We opted for the Metro and had a very pleasant experience. So far, the Metro systems in most of the cities that we’ve tried (Athens, Rome, and now Barcelona) are very nice and easy to maneuver. Barcelona was perhaps the easiest; it had signs in Spanish, Catalonian, and English. There were signs all over the old part of town pointing tourists to the main attraction. And, most convenient for us, La Sagrada Familia has its own Metro stop.

I did not know much about Antonio Gaudi before visiting Barcelona. To be fair, all I know is what my trusty guidebook told me. Gaudi died before he finished Sagrada Familia. It is a grand church with crazy sculptures (including fruit topping the spires) on the outside and pristine white on the inside. There was scaffolding on the inside and out… the city is still trying to finish the church more than 100 years later.

One of the attractions (besides the pure craziness of the architecture) of the church is the trip to the top of one of the spires. Jen and I decided we would like the birds eye view so we paid the two Euros for the lift up the tower, climbed the 40 or so stairs to the very top and then took the windy stairs all the way down. The view at the top (and on the way down) was well worth the money.

After descending the tower we took a spin around the rest of the inside of the church and then headed on back to the Metro to go back to the area closer to the port. We knew we wanted to see the Picasso Museum but we were also hungry so we decided to find some lunch in La Ribera area, a very old area of Barcelona that once was a haven for artists and now has many night clubs (which were not open, obviously) and artist’s studios. We ended up eating at a little café in the garden of a Textile museum very near the Picasso museum.

The Picasso museum was very interesting. It focuses mainly on his younger and later days (ironically, his most famous paintings are not actually housed in the museum), specifically the time he spent in Barcelona. The museum did a very good job of describing the evolution of Picasso’s artwork. Although most people associate him with crazy, abstract art, Picasso’s early days saw him copying the styles of the Impressionists and other famous artists of the time.

After the museum we headed back through La Ribera area to the Bari Gotic. This area, also known as the Old Town, also has winding, narrow (cobblestone) streets and cafes galore. We walked past the large cathedral and were disappointed to discover that they were doing construction (scaffolding covered the façade). We ended up wandering our way back to Las Ramblas and strolled the famous boulevard. There was a fascinating market that was selling all kind of fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, seafood and spices. Eventually we made our way back down Las Ramblas to the statue of Christopher Columbus and boarded the bus back to the ship.

I liked Barcelona. The architecture was amazing (everywhere you turned there was a different shaped building, many times with crazy art work on it) and the town was easy to navigate. Barcelona has a lot of green space (parks, piazzas, etc.) which made it feel much more like a small town than a big city. When we took the Metro back from Sagrada Familia we got off around the University of Barcelona. It was very nice looking area with tall trees and pretty flowers.

Interestingly, I saw more American restaurants in Barcelona than in any other city we’ve been to. There was a Burger King, KFC, Subway and Pizza Hut, just to name a few.

Perhaps the topper, though, was this…

Jennifer and I returned to the ship around 3:30. We ended up being on the same bus back as Grace who had exited her private tour and did a little shopping before heading back. I’ve decided that I really like getting up early, seeing the sites and then coming back to the ship in time relax a little before dinner.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Our second day at sea; and a relaxing day it was. I spent the morning working on this blog post (it takes longer than you think to write all this stuff) on a deck chair on the third deck while listening to music. After a while I went up to the pool to layout in the sun a bit. It was chilly in the shade on Deck 3 but nearly perfect by the pool. I’m on my second book of the trip already. The first I finished last week (not long after we got here) and J is now reading it. I brought another from home but saw they had the seventh Harry Potter book in the ships library and decided I wanted to read that again. Those who know me well won’t be surprised that I’m almost done with that book too… reading is a great activity on a sea day.

We had our second formal night last night so I eventually went back to the room to clean up and make myself pretty. The highlight at dinner was a group (pack?) of whales that came close to the ship (at least we were told by those who were closer to the water that they were whales). We were in the dinning room so all I could see was a bunch of animals with fins coming up for air… it was still pretty cool though.

When dinner was over, Jen and I visited Johnson in the Lido Deck Bar and hung out there until he closed around 9:30. Then we found one of the smaller bar areas on deck 5 and hung out there until it was time to go up to the Crows Nest for the Black and White Ball.

The Black and White ball featured “Nice and Easy”, the live band that’s been playing on the ship, plus an appearance by the Captain and his crew. Everyone was dressed to the nines and the Crows Nest was, for once, pretty crowded. All in all, it was a good time. The party was a cross between a fancy wedding reception and an adult prom. It made for great people watching (there is nothing cuter than elderly couples dancing).

Around Midnight last night we passed through the straight of Gibraltar (Africa was on one side and Spain was on the other) and therefore past the Rock of Gibraltar. Dennis and Grace stayed up try and see it but Jen and I went to bed. Once again, the older folks stayed up later than the younger folks… it’s a pattern we’ve been joking about.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

This morning, about 7:30 AM, we docked in Cadiz, Spain. Cadiz is known as the “gateway” to Seville. Through my research I knew that there are actually just as many things to see here in Cadiz as there are in Seville. Knowing that we probably wouldn’t have the energy to trek to Seville we decided to stay in Cadiz. We exited the ship around 8:30 AM this morning. The entire city is on this kind of peninsula in which we are docked at the port area. It is small enough that we were able to walk to the other side and see the beaches on the Atlantic Ocean.

Much like the more gothic areas of Barcelona, Cadiz has narrow cobblestone streets lined with shops and café’s. It also has a plethora of churches, including a huge Cathedral that sports a golden dome (although it isn’t as impressive as the one at ND). They do a lot of fishing in this town, and even now (sitting on the ship) I can’t quite shake that sort of slightly fishy smell from my nostrils. Apparently there are well known for Sardines here.

We were on shore today for about five hours. We didn’t really need more than that as everything is within easy distance from the ship (unlike Barcelona you literally get off the ship and are in the main square area) and the main attraction is just kind of wandering around, getting lost in the maze of streets.

All four of us started out together today but eventually Dennis peeled off and then Grace too. Jen and I stayed ashore for lunch at a café where we had some terrific Spanish paella full of yummy rice and fresh seafood. I was surprised by the number of dogs roaming the streets of Cadiz. I would have thought, with all of the fish around, I would have seen more Gatos. I did see one, come to think of it, keeping my streak of meeting a cat in every country we visit alive.

Tonight there is a special Chef’s Dinner on board and then I think I might go see a movie (August Rush) in the ships movie theatre. Tomorrow we will be in Lisbon, Portugal, another city that I am very interested to see. I’m not sure yet what my plan for Lisbon is so I suppose I will spend some time this afternoon to figure it out…

Monday, June 02, 2008

Mambo Italiano

Last Wednesday was our first sea day. We slept in and had a late breakfast. Jennifer and I went to the pool to catch some sun and to read. I eventually moved down to the 3rd deck promenade when the sun became too hot and shade became necessary. I finished my book in time for lunch. It was a fantastically relaxing morning.

After lunch I headed up to the 5th deck to post the blog entry about Kusadasi and Santorini. I was having problems with the internet and two of the pictures didn’t make it online (they are there now though so you should go back and read it again). When I was up in the bar (ironically the best place to find wifi) you could really start to feel the boat moving. It wasn’t rocking, exactly, but it was defiantly not as smooth as it was on previous days.

Since the day was a sea day, I felt it would be an appropriate time to talk about life at sea. On our first day the cruise director said that you could eat for 15 hours straight on the Ms. Rotterdam… and I believe her. There is always food somewhere and always someone to serve you a drink (if you want to pay for it of course).

The ship is just the right size. It is big enough so that you don’t feel crowded but small enough so that you don’t lose your way when trying to find something. Our cabin is on deck 2 or the “main” deck (although I have yet to figure out why it is called the main deck). We are in an inside cabin (all four of us in one) but it is surprisingly not as crowded as I thought it would be.

Supposedly Holland America has larger cabins than other cruise lines; something that I think must be true. Our room is configured so that I am sleeping on a couch that turns into a single bed. The steward comes in every night while we are at dinner and does the conversion. Jennifer is sleeping on an “upper berth” that hangs from the ceiling over the queen sized bed that Grace and Dennis are in. There are curtains that can be drawn between the bed area and the area where the couch is as well as between the small hallway with closets and the rest of the room. This helps with privacy when we are all getting ready. It’s sort of like living in a dorm room. The only time the cabin really feels crowded is in the morning when we wake up and all want to start getting ready. We are getting better about scheduling around each other.

For breakfast and lunch we have been sticking to the Lido deck buffet (which is on the 8th deck). For dinner, however, we have a fixed dining time of 5:45 in the main dinning room. Our table consists of the four of us plus two other couples. Pat and Hank are from Cleveland, Ohio. As a native Ohioan I have enjoyed chatting about the homeland. They are a very cute couple. It is the second marriage for both (I would guess they are in their upper 70’s, early 80’s). Both knew each other for many years as Pat’s husband worked with Hank in the Canton school systems. When Pat’s husband died she lost touch with Hank. Some years later Hank’s wife passed away and they randomly reconnected while volunteering for Meals on Wheels. About three years ago they got married. When they told the story, J and I both said “awww” at the same time. You can’t help it, they are just too cute. Both are former educators (Hank use to be superintendent of the Canton school system) and both are still actively involved in the community.

The second couple has an even more amazing story. Roger and Joan were the best of friends while growing up in California. After high school they parted ways. Joan became an art teacher and eventually married a man who taught, of all places, Drake University in Iowa. Eventually they both married and eventually they both became widows. When Roger heard that Joan’s husband had passed away he called her up to reconnect. They have been married now for several years (over 5 I think) and live in Washington State.

On most evenings, Dennis and Grace head to the show in the big lounge after dinner. J and I haven’t attended a show yet as nothing has interested us. Some nights we go off and do our own thing (mostly reading or writing, I think) and some nights we hang out somewhere on the ship. We rented Roman Holiday from the ships library on Wednesday night and watched it in preparation for our stop in Rome.

Before watching the movie that night we hung out in the Crows Nest (a bar on the 9th deck in the front of the ship that has wrap around windows) and watched as we maneuvered our way through the straight of Messina. Italy was on one side and Sicily was on the other. We had to pick up a local pilot (his boat pulled right up beside us and he jumped on) to guide us through the straight. We were pretty close to land so it was kind of neat to watch from the birds eye view.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Today we docked in Naples, Italy around 8:00 AM. Naples has been in the news a lot lately because of a garbage problem that is ravaging the city. Luckily, we did not plan to stay in Napoli and did not have to deal with the piles of garbage or the smell, which is supposedly pretty bad in the city center.

We planned to meet up with our Canadian friends, Mark and Leslie, just before 8:00 AM this morning. Once the ship was cleared the six of us debarked and found our driver Neil (pronounced Nelo) waiting at the end of the dock. He had a nice six passenger van for our private tour of the Amalfi coast (including a stop at Pompeii). He spoke very good English and knew all kinds of interesting information about Naples and the coast. In short, he was a fantastic driver/tour guide.

After consulting with Neil we decided to do the coast first and end at Pompeii (which was on the way back to Naples). He said we would stop in Postiano and in the town of Amalfi before having lunch and then heading to Pompeii.

The Amalfi coast was spectacular. We started by heading toward Sorrento around the bay of Sorrento. We wound our way up they mountain (or I should say, Neil wound the way up the mountain) and stopped here and there to take pictures of the scenery. He stopped in Sorrento and bought us all lemon pudding/cake type things (I can’t recall exactly what he called them) for a morning breakfast treat. Everywhere you look in Sorrento there are lemon trees. They are planted on the hillsides, almost one on top of the other. They also have walnuts, tomatoes and many other kinds of fresh fruits and vegetables including grapes (for vino of course) and olives (for oil of course).

It is difficult to describe our day on the Amalfi coast. I wish I had a way to draw the rout we took (maybe when we get home) so you could better understand how we wound our way around the narrow, twisty roads. I think the “sss” curve must have been invented here. There were many places where there was a single stoplight that controlled the two-way traffic letting one way go around the curve an then another go around the curve. Jennifer, Leslie and I (all sitting in the middle portion of the van) were very happy to make it trough the trip without losing our breakfast/snack/lunch etc.

Our first real stop on the coast was the town of Postiano. Neil dropped us off near the town center (vehicles can only go in so far) and told us where to find him an hour later. Jennifer and Leslie really wanted an Italian cappuccino so we went to a cliffside café and tried the local fair. I decided to have one too just to say I did and I actually really liked it. To be honest, we were still getting used to the tight twisty roads and didn’t see as much of Postiano as we probably should have… it just felt so good to sip cappuccino in the sunshine and to be on solid ground.

We stopped next at the town of Amalfi. Here we all split up and wandered the narrow cobblestone streets. They have a beautiful cathedral in Amalfi that sits on a hill overlooking a busy shopping area. Speaking of shopping, I may have picked up a few things here and there.

When we returned to the van (about an hour later) Neil suggested we head to lunch. We told him we wanted pizza and he, of course, new just the place. Around and around we went, up the mountain, to this little restaurant where we were treated to tantalizing antipasto, scrumptious pizza and tasty wine… all followed of course by the pasta course. The restaurant was tiny and family owned. We sat in an outdoor café like area that hung over the cliffside. The meal was magnifico.

After lunch we went back down the mountain to Pompeii. It was a twisty ride and I was really, really glad when we reached the bottom of the mountain. We were worried about the traffic getting back to Naples and decided to stay at Pompeii for only one hour (we didn’t want to miss the boat). Jennifer and Grace had already been so they opted to hang out in the shade and wait for Mark, Leslie, Dennis and I. The four of us went in and wandered around. It was interesting but I didn’t enjoy it as much as the Acropolis in Athens, probably because we didn’t have enough time to really see anything and didn’t really know what the things that we saw were. It was still worth it to go though; I’m not sure when I’ll be in Naples again.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Today was the day I’d been waiting for since we first planned this trip. Rome. I’ve wanted to go to Rome ever since Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck introduced me to it. My agenda for the day was quite simple, stop at St. Peter’s Basilica, the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain and any other random piazzas and fountains in between. I decided to skip the Vatican Museums (and therefore the Sistine Chapel) because I knew I would want to spend more time than I had, same for the Coliseum and Roman Forum.

The port of Civitavecchia, Italy is about a two hour drive from Rome (just over an hour by train). After extensive research we decided to take the train as the cost was only 9 Euros (round trip) and the train station was very close to the port. It was a great decision. We got off the boat as soon as were able (7:00 AM) and headed to the train station. We were traveling into the city with Mark and Leslie even though we were splitting up once we got to Rome. Jennifer and Grace had decided to focus their day on the Coliseum, Roman Forum and Palatine Hill. Dennis was heading off to St. Peters Square with me.

Dennis and I actually exited the train before the rest of the group. There is a stop right down the street from the Vatican which made it easy to start the day with the Basilica. My research told me to go to the Vatican first thing in the morning or late in the afternoon. Once again, it did not fail me. We waited only 10 minutes to get into St. Peter’s Basilica and most of that was necessary only because we had to walk through metal detectors before going in. (The line when we left was four times that long.)

The Basilica was, as you might imagine, gorgeous. We both had the opportunity to pray in one of the little side chapels which was kind of neat. I was surprised that they allowed you to take pictures inside. I was happy though, because it allowed me to capture this image…

After St. Peters we headed into Central Rome (on foot because I wanted to see the city). I was trying to find a certain piazza that my guidebook said was a great place to start when, oops, we ran into the Spanish Steps! It was kind of cool actually, just randomly running into a famous place like that. We also randomly ran into Mark and Leslie, who had already been to the Coliseum and Trevi Fountain, such a small world!

The rest of our day is quite a blur. We saw everything I wanted to see plus the Pantheon (which really impressed me) and managed some gelato and a slice of pizza for lunch. Following tradition, I threw a coin into Trevi Fountain to ensure that some day I will return to Roma.

Dennis was very patient as I navigated us through the city, stopping at random shops here and there. I may have done some shopping in Rome too…

By Saturday afternoon I had pretty much worn Dennis out. We met Grace and Jennifer at the Spanish Steps around 4:15 PM and took the Metro to the main train station. There was a 5:15 train back to Civitavecchia that arrived around 6:30 PM. It was almost 7:00 PM by the time we got back to the ship. We went right from the Gangway to the theatre where we attended the Catholic Mass in anticipation of Sunday. Dennis and I joked that if we didn’t make it to mass at least we had prayed at St. Peter’s.

I loved Rome. The minute I left I couldn’t wait to go back. There is a different feel in the air of Rome, it is romantic, more relaxed, just like you would expect it to be. I imagine that the best way to see Rome is to let it just come to you. This will be my plan on my next visit.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Holy Cats! Ancient Libraries! Scenic Views!

On Tuesday the Ms. Rotterdam made her first port of call. The stop was Kusadsi, Turkey, the gateway to Ephesus. Visitors are attracted to Ephesus because it is one the best preserved ancient cities. It is believed that Saint John brought the Virgin Mary here in the final years of her life. Archeologists have excavated about 20% of the third city of Ephesus. Parts of cities one, two and four can still be seen in the area although they are mostly lost… perhaps forever.

At this stop, we decided to take a ship tour that visited the Virgin Mary House and the ruins at Ephesus. Our bus was not completely full and was well air conditioned… a necessity on this near 90 degree day. It was about a 15-20 minute drive from the port in Kusadasi up the mountain to the Virgin Mary House. The site itself is very tiny. It was once visited by Pope John Paul II who acknowledged that it could be the place that the Virgin Mary came to live. These days it is visited by Christians from all over the world as a place of worship.

Inside the house you can light a candle for loved ones. Outside there is a whishing wall that people leave wishes on. There is also a spring that is said to have water that has been blessed by the Pope himself.

Perhaps the sweetest thing I saw at the Virgin Mary’s House, however, was this scene right here.

Eventually we boarded the bus and headed back down to the Ephesus. The top of the mountain had been cool and shady… Ephesus was not. I had read that it would be very crowded, and I was not misinformed. Most people were in tour groups from the cruise ships in Kusadasi and from land tours of Turkey. Our guide did a good job of finding the shady spots where available.

To me, Ephesus was not as impressive as the ruins at the Acropolis in Athens. It was interesting and it was historically important but it wasn’t as breathtaking as the Parthenon etc. By far the coolest part of Ephesus was the Celsius Library (see picture below). The Library is the best preserved building on the Ephesus site. It really did make you feel like you were in an ancient city.

Upon leaving Ephesus, the bus headed back to Kusadasi and an optional Turkish carpet demonstration. Dennis, Jennifer and I opted out of the carpet demo and headed back to the ship for lunch. Grace stuck around and did some shopping in the bazaars of Kusadasi.

Kusadasi is a very touristy town. In many aspects, it reminded me of Chinatown in New York City… only there were Turkish men trying to chase you down to buy things instead of Chinese men. It was very hot out and I really had no desire to go back and be harassed by the shop keepers. You are expected the bargain in Turkey, something that I am not good at and do not enjoy. Jennifer also decided to skip going back into town and after lunch we went to the theatre on the ship to see the movie 27 Dresses. It was fabulous of course.

Tuesday night was our first formal night on the ship. This surprised me as I thought for sure it would be on Thursday (our first sea day). We got all gussied up and enjoyed a scrumptious prime rib dinner. After dinner the four of us went for a drink in the Crows Nest bar. Jennifer and I stayed for a bit in the bar while Grace and Dennis went to the stage show. Eventually we (J and I) moved down to the sea view pool bar and made friends with a Pilipino bartender named Johnson (we were the only one’s there). It was very interesting to learn about his life on the boat (this is his fourth year on a HAL ship) and about his background. It was a beautiful night and nice to sit outside and chat under the stars.

Wednesday, May 28

We docked this morning in Santorini, Greece around 6:30 AM. Originally our plan was to get off the ship right at 8:00 AM to beat the crowd to the island but we found out last night that only people on ships tours could leave that early… the rest of us couldn’t go until 9:00 AM.

Santorini is one of the best known, and most aesthetically pleasing, Greek Islands. It is well known for its tiny villages with white houses and blue roofs (if you’ve ever seen an advertisement for Greece, you’ve probably seen a picture of Santorini). The interesting thing about Santorini is how you get ashore. The island (and therefore port) is very small. Cruise ships tender in the bay near the city of Fira (or Thira, depending on who you ask).

Santorini came about from the leftover lava of a nearby volcano thousands of years ago. The island, therefore, is really a mountaintop… and Fira sits atop the mountain. How do you get from ship to shore? First you take a small boat (or tender) to the base of the mountain. Then you have three options, take the cable car (funicular), ride a donkey up a path, or hike the path with the donkey crap.

The reason we wanted to get off the boat so early was to jump in the cable car line before it got too crowded. We were traveling today with some friends (Mark and Leslie) that I met on a Website called Cruise Critic. We will be sharing a tour with them in Naples, Italy and since we had pretty much the same plan for Santorini we decided to travel up the mountain and to a town called Oia (Eee-ah) together.

It ended up that they made tenders available to those of us going “on our own” about 8:45. We met with Mark and Leslie at the pre-arranged time and took the tender to the base of the mountain. The line for the cable car was about a half an hour long but was moving pretty well. The ride up the mountain was kind of scary and kind of fun all wrapped into one. It kind of felt like the old sky ride at Cedar Point only it was going up (instead of at one height) and there were huge cliffs under you and the sea behind you.

Once in Fira we made our way to the bus station and pushed our way onto the next bus to Oia. The bus was only 1.40 (Euro) which was a bargain but was very crowded. We had to stand the entire way. It was a very windy with steep drop offs to the right and rocky hills to the left. We all felt a bit woozy when we finally exited the bus.

If you are wondering if all the trouble of getting to Oia was worth it, take a look at this picture…

I have never seen water (and sky) so blue. It was absolutely breathtaking.

Along with the spectacular views, Oia (and Fira) are known for great shopping. After taking tons of pictures the six of us started to wander the narrow, windy streets of Oia. Eventually Mark and Leslie went one way and we went another as we set off to find little shops in the little town.

After a while, we Ferreters were tired and hungry so we hopped a bus back to Fira (the bus wasn’t crowded this time and we got to sit down making the trip way more enjoyable). Dennis went back to the ship for lunch and to relax while us girls tried the local Gyros from a corner stand (yummy) and did some more shopping. When we were shopping, we ran into our new bartender friend Johnson who was ashore enjoying the sites… such a small world! By 2:30 we were ready to go home. Jennifer decided to walk down the path (ahead of the donkeys, when possible) and Grace and I waited the 30 minutes for the cable car.

As it turned out, our timing was great today. At dinner our tablemates said there was a 1 1/2 to 2 hour wait for the cable car to go up the mountain around 10:00 AM and at least 1 hour to 1 1/2 hour wait to come down later in the day.

This afternoon, we all went our separate ways and enjoyed the ship. I came up here to the 3rd deck promenade (same place I’m at now) to begin writing. Jen went to the pool. Dennis took a nap somewhere and Grace did some reading at the Lido deck. We had another good dinner (you seriously can’t eat enough on a cruise ship) and then settled in for a relaxing evening.

Right now Jen and I are on the promenade on the 3rd deck sitting on lounge chairs and writing away. The sunset was unbelievable this evening and the water is incredibly blue. We have a sea day tomorrow. I’m looking forward to having no plans other than to relax.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Greece is the Word

And finally the trip begins. Here I am on the beautiful Ms. Rotterdam finally able to connect with the Internet and begin (in earnest) writing about my travels.

It has been a whirlwind weekend. On Friday morning MPF drove Grace, Dennis and I too the airport for our first flight (Chicago to Newark). We left a bit late, and it was a bit of a bumpy ride, but we had plenty of time on the back end in Newark before our flight to Greece.

Once in Newark we met Jennifer who had traveled via NJ Transit to EWR from Manhattan. Our flight to Athens was full with an interesting mixture of college students, families, and couples of many nationalities. Athens is eight hours ahead of Chicago so we tried our best to sleep on the plane. We had a good flight (overall it was very smooth) and landed right on time.

We landed in Athens around 10:20 AM local time on Saturday morning. After clearing customs and collecting our luggage, we met with a Holland America representative who directed us (and others) to the HAL bus that was headed for our hotel. It is about a 30-45 minute drive from the Athens airport to the Marriot (depending on traffic) and there was another HAL representative on the bus to answer questions about the hotel as well as Athens.

As we drove through town, we passed the Temple of Zeus and the original Olympic Stadium. It was a bright, bright sunny day and very warm (probably upper 70’s or low 80’s) that felt even warmer because of the intense sunshine.

Upon arrival at the Ledra Marriot we were surprised to learn that we had two rooms instead of one. Jennifer and I stayed in a room with two double beds and Dennis and Grace were right next door. The Ledra Marriot is a pretty nice hotel (not much different than other Marriot’s but that is a compliment, not a complaint). We had a very nice sized room with a large closet, TV, desk and extra chairs.

After settling in we decided our first course of action was food. One of the drawbacks of the Ledra Marriot is that is not in the “city center” of Athens. The location, just off a busy highway leading to the port of Piraeus, is a residential neighborhood and there are not many dining options nearby. You can’t stop four hungry Americans, though, and we ended up at an Italian café a few minutes walk from the hotel … ironically, right next to a Starbucks (they really are taking over the world).

While at lunch we decided that we would try and go to the National Archeological Museum that afternoon. We were determined to do things during the day to stay awake until at least 8:00 PM local time – therefore beating the jetlag (hopefully). We soon discovered, however, that the museum closed early so we settled on visiting the Plaka area of Athens.

The Plaka is at the base of the Acropolis and is known for its little souvenir shops and street side café’s. To get to the Plaka, we had to walk about fifteen minutes to the closest Metro station and then just hopped a train to the center of Athens (only two stops away, a quick ten minute ride). The Athens metro is very impressive. The city refurbished most of the stations in preparation from the 2004 Summer Olympic Games and I have to say that they were some of the nicest subway stations (and subway cars) that I have ever ridden in. The signs were in Greek and in English and were very easy to follow, all in all, a pleasant experience.

Needless to say, we girls really enjoyed the Plaka. We spent the afternoon wandering the old winding streets, shopping for souvenirs for others and for ourselves. Dennis brought a book with him and ended up sitting in Syntgma Square under a shade tree while we traversed the Plaka. That night we went to a greek restaurant in the Plaka area for some dinner and tasty Greek beer (Mythos).

The Plaka (below).

By the time we got back to the hotel on Saturday night (around 7:00 PM local time) we were really tired. It never felt so good to shower and climb into bed.

Sunday, May 25th

We woke up early on Sunday (around 6:30 AM for Jennifer and I) in preparation for the big day ahead. For the most part, I think our plan to beat the jetlag worked. We were so tired by the time that we went to bed on Saturday night that we were able to pretty much sleep through the night… I know I did at least.

After a quick stop at Starbucks for breakfast food (all the traditional cafes were closed because it was Sunday and the hotel breakfast was outrageously expensive) we made the trek back to the Metro and headed for the Acropolis. We had read that it was best to see the Ancient Greek site in the morning before the sun got too hot and before the site became too crowded.

I have never been a great scholar of classic Greek literature. The only Greek Gods I know are the ones most often mentioned in crossword puzzles. But I have to say, the Acropolis was simply amazing. In climbing up the huge hill that leads to the main attraction (The Parthenon) you get amazing view of the city of Athens and of the sea. But it is what you find at the top that is most worthwhile. A breathtaking view of ancient Greek architecture and history all rolled into one.

It was a good thing that we followed everyone’s advice and did the Acropolis early. Even at 8:30 AM the sun was blazing hot. There was some shade at the top, though, and when you stood in the shade of one of the amazing marble structures and felt the slight breeze it was actually very pleasant outside.

We stayed at the Acropolis until around 10:30 AM when we headed back down the mountain, jumped on the metro up to Syntagma Square and caught the end of the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Greek Parliament building. By that time we were hot and dusty from hiking up to the Acropolis and hungry for lunch. We decided to head back to the Metro at Syntagma and then went to the northern part of Athens for lunch and a visit to the National Archeological Museum.

In retrospect, it was a good thing we did the Acropolis before the museum. It had many treasures that have been rescued from the Acropolis over the years and it was fascinating to read about the different statues and building facades that had once been part of the ruins we had just seen but were now in the museum. The museum was also a nice respite from the heat of the afternoon and allowed us to slow down a bit.

We spent about a few hours at the museum and then re-grouped to figure out our next steps. Dennis decided to head back to the hotel for an afternoon rest but Jen, Grace and I decided to see some of the other ruin sites that were included in our Acropolis ticket. So we headed back toward the Acropolis to see the Theatre of Dineneasus. This is where the Greek arts really began and flourished. After the theatre we headed to the Temple of Zeus. We had seen it from outside from the bus on Saturday but the view of the site from the actual grounds was amazing. The same can be said for the original Olympic Stadium.

The Parthenon (1st) followed by the temple of Zeus.

We headed back to the hotel after this. Jennifer and I had a drink at the rooftop pool bar at the hotel. The beer was expensive but the view of the Acropolis was worth the price. We had dinner on Sunday night at a restaurant near the hotel and then settled in to pack our bags and get ready for the big day on Monday.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Today we boarded the Ms. Rotterdam at the Port of Piraeus. The embarkation processes went off well and we were on deck eating lunch at the Lido buffet by 1:00 PM. Our cabin is tiny but doable. The ship itself is beautiful. Right now I am sitting in the internet café/lounge on my laptop looking out at the sea. It is finally dark outside (it is almost 9:00 PM) as we head for Kusadasi, Turkey.

Happy Memorial Day to all those at home!

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Final Countdown

Here it is, nine days before I leave for Europe, and I am just now catching things up on this blog. I had great intentions when I first decided to record my travels. I will write previews of every port, I thought, and I will preview my sightseeing plan so that all my friends and family know what to expect when I am overseas...

Sadly, life got in the way and I haven't had the time to keep the pre-cruise site as updated as I would have liked. The good news, however, is that the trip is almost here (I can hardly believe it) and this blog will become the best way for me to keep in touch with all of you.

With that in mind, here are some quick trip related updates:

1. We recently changed our flights (we are now flying Continental) which means that we'll actually be getting to Athens earlier on Saturday the 24th. This will allow us a bit more time to explore the city.

2. Through CruiseCritic we met a couple that was looking to share a tour of Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast (Naples stop) and have decided to join them. I am very excited as the views are supposed to be spectacular along the coast.

3. Our stay in Monaco has been extended until 9:00 PM. This will be nice as the day before we will be in Rome and, I imagine, will not want to feel so rushed (i.e. sleep in) when we arrive in Monaco.

4. Because of our new flight schedule (and new airline) DF, GF & I will be staying overnight in London on June 10th. This will mean a bit of time to try and take in as much of London as possible. (More on my London priorities in another post...)

5. I bought a new camera and have been trying it out around town for the past week. If I can take this picture at Wrigley Field just imagine what I'll be able to do in Santorini!

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Seeing is Believing

Here is the visual of our new itinerary....